The big problem with Thor 2 was that it wasn’t a self-contained story that happened to play into a larger whole or set things up for future movies. It was all setting things up for future movies, leaving the dark elf a featureless villain and his grand scheme a complete waste. I know some people didn’t like Iron Man 2, saying it was looking ahead to The Avengers instead of doing its own thing, but I liked it; Thor 2 was just a disappointment.
Anyway, now we have Captain America 2. Same potential issue here, the storyline ties into SHIELD’s place in the Marvel cinematic/TV universe, while at the same time they’ve introduced a couple new characters, teased a couple more, and Captain America is given his own arc dealing with being a man out of time and his country no longer being the unequivocal good he knew.
But Winter Soldier does a lot better than Thor 2, turning out to be an all-around solid film regardless of how it plays into a larger continuity. The Falcon’s introduction is presented as someone who relates to Cap’s problems, being a war veteran himself, rather than another SHIELD agent whose backstory is to be filled in later (how much characterization has Hawkeye been given?). The issue of SHIELD’s priorities isn’t related to the TV show (from my perspective as a non-watcher), but rather a problem that comes up and is resolved within this one story.
The only part I felt was really lacking was Cap’s personal storyline, about not understanding the 21st century and being alone in many ways. The angle of the Winter Soldier ties into this story, but the reveal not only of the identity but the character’s existence is held off too long. The SHIELD story takes center stage right out of the gate, and the Winter Soldier feels like an accessory rather than a driving part of it. Hence his personal relation to Captain America, plus his backstory, is treated like an afterthought and doesn’t carry the impact it should.
This raises the question I’ve been wondering about since Thor 2: does the idea of the Marvel cinematic/TV universe hinder the individual movies by requiring them to be part of a larger saga? Iron Man 2 managed (in my eyes) to get by as its own thing even while serving up events and characters for The Avengers, and Winter Soldier does well enough. But given that this should have been a personal story for Cap, rather than the next stage in a bigger storyline, the movie is not all that it could be.
But saying “It’s not as good as it could have been” is hardly a criticism. Winter Soldier is a very good action movie, especially with a freeway shootout in the middle of the movie. The finale, not so much; standard ‘Race against the countdown to stop the bad guys from initiating their plan, hold off until the last second to win’ explosion-fest. And when the stinger revealed some new characters for future movies I was more “Eh, OK” than actually blown away.
It’s one of the better Marvel movies, but in a way that feels held back. The best solution probably would have been to divide the two stories, SHIELD’s internal compromise as one movie and Captain America dealing with the Winter Soldier in another.